The Berlin Wall—a formidable boundary that had divided a country for 28 cold years— fell on Thursday, November 9, 1989. The day marked the end of a bitter separation of East and West Germans and led to reunification of the country one year later.
A quarter of a century on, Berlin’s past is still present and the city brims with history. Stroll down its streets and speak with its people, for each has a story to tell.
What Goes up Must Come down
By 1961, 2.6 million East Germans had voted with their feet and left the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The regime’s response was the construction of the Berlin Wall on August 12, 1961.
Monika Bimba, born and raised in West Berlin, witnessed a great deal of the city’s history and remembers that morning when her parents took her to the Brandenburg Gate.
“I was shocked and angry when I saw the rolls of barbed wire on the streets,” she said. “I couldn’t understand how the Allies were allowing it to happen. I was only 11, but what I saw scared me. I knew it was serious, and that something terrible was happening.”
Fast forward 28 years to early autumn in 1989. Protests, known as the ”Monday Demonstrations,” had begun in the city of Leipzig. Initially calling for the freedom to travel outside the East, it became evident over the weeks that a modification in this scope would only happen if the entire system were to change completely. Rallies soon reached unprecedented scales in other East German cities, with 100,000 people taking to the streets in Leipzig on October 16 and one million in East Berlin by November 4.
Mario Elle, who was living in Leipzig at that time, recalls those events, which he saw on television as a 12-year-old. “My mother told me about the tension in the air when she took part in one—it was a huge risk for her or anyone to go,” he said. “There wasn’t just joy at the beginning, but also great uncertainty, even fear. Would bullets fly? No one knew. The secret police lurked around every corner, and the consequences of being recognized and reported on were high.”
On November 9, 1989, Günter Schabowski, the former chairman of the GDR’s Socialist Unity Party (SED), held a press conference to discuss the plan of easing travel restrictions for East Germans to the West. Journalist Peter Brinkmann from Bild Magazine asked when that would go into effect. Schabowski looked at his notes and said: “To my knowledge immediately, without delay.” Little did he know, the government had actually intended for the process to happen the following day.
Upon hearing the announcement, most East Germans thought it was a misunderstanding or even a joke. Yet, 20,000 East Berliners streamed into West Berlin via the Bornholmer Strasse border checkpoint in those first 45 minutes. Others remained skeptical at home, fearing the border would close just as suddenly as it had opened and strand them from their families on the other side.
Newsreels of that weekend captured the emotions of a moment in history many had deemed impossible even in their dreams.
Jubilation – Then and Now
The reveling in Berlin extended long into that weekend. “The atmosphere was like celebrating all the holidays and my birthday on the same day,” Monika Bimba said. “I took my two children to the Brandenburg Gate on Saturday night, and we chiseled off a chunk of the Berlin Wall. I had never thought I would have seen that day in my lifetime.”
For East Germans, it granted access to elements of freedom and a world that had been out of reach. “As a child, you first saw everything positive and colorful,” Mario Elle said. “For me, it was Coca- Cola, western music and West German teen magazines—anything. But with my eyes as a boy, I saw the country of my childhood—my GDR—simply disappear one year later. And I cried.”
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, events will take place around Berlin all weekend. The highlight is a light installation of eight thousands helium balloons, each one containing a personal message by private individuals, local associations, businesses, schools and parishes.
Created by brothers Christopher and Marc Bauder, this “border of light” will trace 15 kilometers of the once infamous line that had severed Berlin. Along the way, 100 open-air exhibitions will recall daily life with the Wall, the flights of daring escapes and the memory of at least 136 people who died trying. At the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, film montages will project historical and never-seen-before footage from the Berlin Wall era.
On the evening of November 9, 2014, the illuminated balloons will rise into the air and signify the opening of the Berlin Wall.
From Seoul to Las Vegas to the Vatican City, roughly 600 segments of the 3.6-meter (11.8-foot) high Berlin Wall are on display around the world. In Berlin, portions of the border wall—the graffiti-laden side many knew from Western television—still stand in three original locations. The longest of which, albeit in sections, is at the lauded Berlin Wall Memorial.
An intact stretch of the eastern, inner wall, which was off limits to East Germans, is along the River Spree. In 1990, over one hundred artists from 21 countries traveled to Berlin and converted this 1.3-kilometer concrete canvas into the famed, open-air East Side Gallery.
Berlin is indeed a survivor. It emerged from the ashes and rubble of a world war divided, only to break out of the grim and grey reality of a cold war as one.